Before Fierce: Remembering Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes

An Amazonian woman draped in exotic materials stands before him trying to change her pose as rapidly as the young artist finishes another drawing. His vibrant eyes move over the model capturing more than the newest fashion in which she is adorned; he is able to put on the page a bold and palpable as well.

When Viramontes worked, he did so in a fervor.

Frank Anthony Viramontes was born in Santa Monica, California to first generation Mexican parents. Having an artistic inclination at a young age, Tony drew everything from cheerleaders to matadors, finding himself enamored by their bright garments. His supportive parents would bring young Tony along to bullfights in nearby Tijuana where he developed an intense appreciation for elegant yet brash masculinity.

The way in which Tony would work in fashion illustration throughout his career was reminiscent of the toreador’s movements that he studied as a boy. Seizing the aggressive and energetic styles of the 1980’s came naturally to him. With the slashing stroke of his charcoal pencil, he was able to say more in the movement of his line than a photograph ever could.

80s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes

Tony Viramontes Fashion Illustration – October 1984 – “Bold, Beautiful and Damned: The World of 1980s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes”

Fashion illustration had its time in the limelight during the midcentury when the delicate and detailed works of René Bouché and Erté were swooned over by Vogue and Vanity Fair. These publications would continue to feature fashion illustrators but with the rising popularity of photography, the demand of drawings declined.

This did not stop Tony Viramontes from following his passion, however, and he moved from Santa Monica to New York to attend the famous Parsons School. After an important relocation to Paris, he quickly discovered commercial success and began work with a multitude of houses and publications.

He would go on to illustrate for such legends as Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, as well as publications like Harpers Bazaar, Marie Claire, and Vogue Italia.

His collaborations were at the furthest edge of trending couture. He continued to push his artistic boundaries by collaging in his sketches with his photography to create striking and innovative new pieces.

Viramontes was not confined to the world of fashion and many of his most known pieces are for musicians. In 1986, he showed a new audience his talents by illustrating the cover art for Janet Jacksons’ album Control. Duran Duran listeners became familiar with his work as well when he did the illustrations for their album Arcadia.

Album Cover Arcadia - Duran Duran

Viramontes did not want to be pigeonholed into the simple title of “illustrator.” In personal works of portraiture, he stood apart as truly unique artist. In these pieces, Viramontes experimented with an androgynous style that the world had yet to see. Giving young, sculpted Adonic men a curl of snarky red lips combined with bejeweled adornments, he offered viewers a new take on masculinity.

When drawing women, Viramontes preferred to depict them with strong, angular faces and prominent noses. Often these beautiful women were shown with contorted expressions of rage rather than demure or natural looks. For both men and women, he challenged viewers by offsetting their perception of beauty within the confines of gender.

‘Bold, Beautiful and Damned: The World of 1980s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes’ by Dean Rhys Morgan and published by Laurence King Publishing, celebrates the artist’s work and life.

Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes 80s


Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes


80s fashion illustration and layouts Tony Viramontes


New York Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes

FROM THE BOOK “Bold, Beautiful and Damned: The World of 1980s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes”

Tony Viramontes, polaroids and Illustration 1980s

FROM THE BOOK “Bold, Beautiful and Damned: The World of 1980s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes”

Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes

Surrounding himself with the likes of Janice Dickinson, Naomi Campbell, and Paloma Picasso, muses were never in short supply (male or female), and he immersed himself in his art and as well as partying. Viramontes’ work represents an important, slightly hedonistic embracing of the wild.

His perfect portrayal of the excessive nightlife of the 1980s was a result of Tony Viramontes being a part of the glitterati, spending much of his time in the nightclubs of New York and Paris.

He, like many other young gay men of the 1980s, fell victim to the AIDS virus and died at the age of 33. The pain of losing such an immensely talented young man as Viramontes was not a loss felt just by his contemporaries.

Energy pulses in his work, each line flowing with movement and attitude. You can envision his hand rapidly sketching out eyes, hips—a ribbon of color. Because he, the models, and the era were all so present within his material, his images have a timeless quality that makes them immune to antiquation.

His influence reverberates continuously throughout fashion illustration as well as in the global artistic community.

The tides are turning in the 21st century and words like, transgender and homosexual are no longer whispered. Gay rights are finally moving in the right direction and what impact this will have on current and future artists can only be anticipated. If Tony Viramontes had not died so young, this certainly would be an exciting time for him. One cannot help but wonder what his career would be like if suddenly his striking images were seen by larger venues and recognized as the exciting triumphs they really were.



Cover for Janet Jackson Album
Janet Jackson Album Cover by Tony Viramontes



‘Bold, Beautiful and Damned: The World of 1980s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes’ by Dean Rhys Morgan and published by Laurence King Publishing, celebrates the artist’s work and life. — words by Ashlee Girdner

Tony Viramontes’ New York City Muses

Tony Viramontes, an iconic figure in the world of fashion illustration during the 1980s, left an indelible mark with his bold, expressive style that captured the dynamic essence of his era. Renowned for his striking depictions of fashion models and celebrities, Viramontes’ work was as vibrant and pulsating as the city he adored—New York. This bustling metropolis, a melting pot of creativity and innovation, served not only as his home but as a ceaseless source of inspiration. In this extension of our previous discussions on Viramontes, we delve deeper into how New York City and its illustrious personalities influenced his artistic journey and helped define his legacy.

New York City: The Backdrop for Innovation

In the early 1980s, New York City was a cultural hub characterized by its eclectic mix of fashion, art, and music. It was here, in the heart of this urban artistic renaissance, that Tony Viramontes found his rhythm. The city’s energy is palpable in each stroke of his drawings, which are marked by an intensity and motion that mirrors the relentless pace of the city itself. Viramontes thrived in an environment where the avant-garde was not just welcomed but celebrated. His work reflects the architectural boldness of New York—sharp lines, dramatic angles, and stark contrasts.

Muses and Collaborators: The Faces of Viramontes’ New York

Viramontes’ art was heavily influenced by the people who brought New York’s fashion scene to life. His muses—often bold, assertive women and striking men—were more than just subjects; they were collaborators who brought their own energy and personality to his work. Iconic figures such as Janice Dickinson, Paloma Picasso, and Iman were not only frequent subjects but also emblematic of the types of strong personalities that inspired Viramontes. Each model brought something unique to the canvas, from Dickinson’s fierce confidence to Picasso’s sophisticated poise and Iman’s elegant strength.

Moreover, Viramontes captured the essence of New York’s underground scene through his illustrations of nightclub denizens and the LGBTQ+ community, who were integral to the cultural fabric of the city. His illustrations are celebrations of diversity and inclusivity, echoing New York’s status as a sanctuary for the unique and the unconventional.

Legacy in the Fashion World

Tony Viramontes’ impact on fashion was profound. His illustrations appeared in prominent publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Elle, shaping the visual landscape of fashion media. His bold use of color and aggressive line work challenged the delicate, often demure fashion illustrations of the time, paving the way for a more assertive style that mirrored the evolution of fashion itself during the era.

His collaboration with major fashion houses such as Chanel, Valentino, and Versace emphasized this shift, as Viramontes brought the vivacity of New York’s fashion scene to global audiences. His ability to translate the haute couture of these brands into striking, memorable art pieces further solidified his reputation as a visionary.

Tony Viramontes’ work remains a testament to the power of illustration to convey more than just clothing but attitudes, culture, and personality. His New York City backdrop was more than a mere setting; it was a vivacious participant in his creative process, a muse that continually inspired him to push the boundaries of his craft. As we remember Viramontes, we celebrate not just a prolific artist but a pivotal figure who captured the zeitgeist of one of the world’s most vibrant cities. Through his eyes, we experience a New York that was at once a canvas, a stage, and a star—a city that forever lives in the bold lines and dramatic swaths of color that define his art.

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